Event report – Born this way

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Participants in the ‘Born this way’ workshop. From back left: John Gilmore, Steve Lyon, Jamie Lawson, Oskar Burger, Carin Tunaker, Marian Duggan, Gerulf Rieger, Diana Fleischman, Peter Goodfellow and Sarah Johns.

“’Born this way’ in contemporary science: multidisciplinary approaches to sexuality and gender.”

On November 24th, researchers from several institutions came together to discuss a variety of perspectives to understanding sex, sexual orientation and gender. The event was jointly held by the Biological Anthropology research group in the School of Anthropology and Conservation and the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies of Reproduction (CISoR). The workshop considered perspectives from biology, psychology, anthropology, and sociology, endeavouring to move from the chromosome, through a prism of the mind and culture, and ending with fully applied perspectives.

Overall it showed a variety of perspectives on a complicated topic and tried to facilitate conversation across disciplines.

Peter Goodfellow (University of Kent) gave an overview of how chromosomes influence the biology of sex, highlighting decades of his research on the role of how the SRY gene determines sex in mice. This was followed by Gerulf Rieger (University of Essex) who has looked for interesting links between childhood gender non-conformity and sexual orientation during adulthood. Diana Fleischman (University of Portsmouth) presented fascinating work about how sexual activity is a form of making affiliations among people, suggesting that same-sex sexual contact is no more mysterious than any other form of social bonding or contact. Jamie Lawson (University of Durham) used an innovative ‘Q-step’ methodology to show how problematic gender categories can be, in failing to capture actual associations in the terms people use to describe gender. Steve Lyon (University of Durham) then gave a fully ethnographic example from Pakistan, where sex between men is often not linked to homosexuality and a third gender of people are often raised apart from their families where they may receive some protection from a social environment that can treat gender non-conformists harshly. Steve’s work also linked to problems of low rates of condom usage and how this affects the spread of HIV. The final speaker of the day, Marian Duggan (University of Kent), showed how attitudes toward same-sex marriage have changed globally and gave a detailed sociological analysis of the recent referendum in Northern Ireland.

After the series of six talks the event concluded with a panel discussion. The expert panel included the six speakers along with John Gilmore (Canterbury Christ’s Church University), Sarah Johns (University of Kent), Carin Tunaker (University of Kent), and Darren Griffin (University of Kent). The panel, with audience input, addressed quite challenging topics such as how to understand homophobia, and its causes, as well as what types of research should be prioritized or avoided based on concerns of ethics vs scientific freedom. While difficult topics were certainly addressed, all present seemed to think that more dialogue of this type should happen in the future.

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